Monday, November 30, 2009

Saba - The Highest Point of a European Kingdom

Here’s an odd fact you probably didn’t know about the Caribbean. That the highest point in Holland is on a tiny Caribbean island called Saba. Admittedly ‘Netherlands’ means ‘low-lying lands’, so you wouldn’t expect much, but Saba really is tiny. It’s just three and a bit kilometres by five.

But it rises incredibly steeply from the sea, to a vertiginous (well, comparatively vertiginous) 2885 feet, in the indomitable Mount Scenery...Saba, which is an autonomous territory of the Netherlands, is an extinct volcano, the most northerly of the inner chain of Eastern Caribbean islands. It is also a fantastically pretty island - but who would ever have thought it could be the highest point of a European Kingdom?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Death by Octopus - A Lobster's Fate

You’d think that being a lobster would make you pretty much invincible on the reefs of the Caribbean. This is possibly except where humans are concerned, who can simply pick you up and drop you in a pot of boiling water. But generally lobsters would be invulnerable, you’d think. They’re pretty heavily armoured. Their carapace is hard and covered with nasty spines. And some species have those fearsome-looking claws - you don’t want to get the wrong side of them whatever your size.

But then you probably haven’t reckoned with an octopus. These animals are fearsome, and spooky, worthy of a science fiction movie really. Each of its thousands of suckers has admirable sucking power, so it can grapple you and drag you down and it can change colour faster than any animal alive. It is even a shape shifter, making itself look like a sea snake or a lion fish with ease. Of course octopi have run riot in human imagination, which has pictured them large enough to sink a ship, but actually most are relatively small.

Not that this much consolation to your average lobster. And here’s a macabre thought. Imagine you’re an average lobster on your rounds, picking over the reef, when a massive blanket descends on you from above. It envelopes you. If you were a fish you would be dispatched with a peck that would break your spine. But for the lobster there is a nastier fate in store. All it can do is to wait - like a medieval knight unhorsed, in a suit of armour so immobilising that the first attacker will simply pull the visor aside and thrust a dagger into his eye. In the lobster’s case you must wait for the octopus’s incredibly sharp beak to peck a hole in your head, after which it will inject venom that will turn your brain to mush.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Good Morning - A Lesson in Manners

It’s one of those aspects of West Indian life. You are expected to greet people, when you meet them. Even if you don’t know them. It sometimes seems odd, coming from a big city in which people barely even look one another in the eye. But in the islands, people say hello when they pass in the street, often from the opposite sides of the road, despite the fact that they do not know the other person. People even say good-morning when then get on a bus in some islands, to an assembled company of people they don’t know. An exchange cannot pass properly until you have.

I found myself standing in a bakery in Roseau in Dominica, waiting my turn to buy a rock cake and one of the island’s fantastic juices this time, for a belated breakfast. I am surrounded by schoolchildren who are on their break. I am about to make my order when all goes quiet. A ‘big man’ walks in. he is covered with gold. Perhaps he is a hood. They all seem to know him, anyway. He walks straight up to the counter and says:

‘Gimme a pattie. Beef.’ He points.

There is a pause, as the lady behind the counter holds his eye. Two seconds, three, four...

‘Good morning’, she says.

It stops him in his tracks. Suddenly everyone is minutely interested in the signs on the wall, anything but the main counter. He says good morning before he asks her more politely.

Oooh what a put down...

Friday, November 13, 2009

World Travel Market 2009 - A Precursor

Whoops. Apologies for the oversight this week. No entry for the Definitive Caribbean blog.

You’ll be glad to know, however, we have been using our time well at World Travel Market, a travel trade fair, which is a travel experience in itself. Literally every country in the world is represented there and has its stand. You can go from South America to the Philippines and then via the Ukraine to Australia without jetlag - well, nearly, as the whole experience is frankly pretty boggling and exhausting to be honest. The building itself seem to work like a psychological vortex, sapping energy in a thoroughly twenty-first century way.

But among all the business, attending has its moments. The Lithuanians had a green dragon this year. I saw him pick some poor unfortunate and follow them until they ran and hid. On the Brazilian stand they were dancing. And in the Caribbean area, well… some time in the afternoon, they did as they always do, have a party.

And of course, to top off the entertainment, there are the baroque activities of the transport system that gets you there (or possibly doesn’t), the Docklands Light Railway. Actually it wasn’t so bad this year.

The purpose – to collect information about what’s new in the Caribbean for the coming season… Look out for our report to come.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Jet Lag - Can it work in your favour?

Flights to the Caribbean from Europe leave in the middle of the day. It’s not exactly a normal time to go to sleep, but in my case – as I’ve usually packed late into the night before - I doze off when there’s a moment’s quiet (knowing subconsciously that there’s eight undisturbed hours ahead of me). Generally I’m gone by the time the engines roar on take off. Then there’s a stuttering, low oxygen snooze for several hours. It becomes a sleep of Lethe. The whole of my recent life – the problems, concerns, even the pleasures – is simply elided from memory. The change in perspective, as forward looking as the plane itself, means that I wake up with nothing in mind but the coming Caribbean trip. It’s the way it should be.

And the good is just beginning. With the hour change you touch down at three or four in the afternoon, which in turn means that you clear the airport and arrive at your hotel just in time to see the sunset over the sea horizon. The tree frogs ring in the trees and bushes around you and there is the gentle wash of the waves. After that there’s a drink, and dinner. Understandably you’re exhausted by ten o’clock – it’s two or three in the morning at home – so off you go to bed early.

And then after a full eight hours of sleep you wake at six, in the still of the Caribbean dawn. The early morning is the loveliest time in the islands. It is usually calm and of course it is not too hot. If you take a walk you will see a few people about, perhaps taking a ‘sea bath’ in the calm water or dusting their porch. Life tends to start early in the Caribbean so that the working day is over by the time it becomes too hot. Waking at dawn can last for a few days, if you’re not pushing it at the other end of the day.

It all sounds too good to be true. And of course it is. Payback time comes on the flight home (somehow I never sleep until we begin the descent into land). Then the flight dumps you out on a cold morning, often still in the dark, feeling hideous. It’s a sting in the tail, but gradually the memories take over and soon enough you’re thinking about next year.

Check out the Definitive Guide to getting to the Caribbean.

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